Losing Nichelle Nichols and Bill Russell is a reminder that there is still more trailblazing to do

August 2, 2022, 9:36 PM UTC
Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura in the STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES
CBS—Getty Images

Two towering figures, trailblazers in separate yet intersecting ways, are with the ancestors now.

Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek series, and Bill Russell, who brought honor, glory, and truth-telling to the Boston Celtics—who had never reached an NBA final before Russell arrived and then couldn’t stop winning for trying—both died last week, at 89, and 88 respectively.

Both directly confronted racism, hate, and systemic barriers. Both were beacons in dangerous waters, inviting Black fans to imagine themselves as, well, welcome. In Nichols’s case, into a community of science, fiction, spaceflight, and the vision of Black people playing essential roles in an inclusive future. In Russell’s case, Black Bostonians (and beyond) were finally able to bear witness to a great talent who brought joy to the community and who looked like them, not their oppressors.

The Boston-area school desegregation riots were still a decade and a half away when Russell left West Oakland, a segregated city, to play for Boston. But it started ugly. “When Russell arrived in Boston, widely considered the most racist city in America, he did so only because neither the ownership of the St. Louis Hawks nor its white fan base wanted a star Black player as its face — even the great Bill Russell, who had just won Gold for team USA in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia,” writes Howard Bryant in this poignant piece.

When Nichols arrived in our living rooms in September 1966, elegant, brilliant, and commanding, Malcolm X was already gone, and the civil rights movement was lurching toward an unknown conclusion. It turns out that it was Martin Luther King who personally talked her into staying past the first ground-breaking season. The trained songbird (who knew?) was headed to Broadway when she was introduced to the reverend at an NAACP fundraiser, who declared himself her biggest fan. He then made sure she understood the assignment. “You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for,” King told her. And then insisted she stay on. “[D]on’t you understand what this man [series creator Gene Roddenberry] has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen.”

This is a time to celebrate their lives and to enjoy the witness-bearing.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had known Russell since he was 14 years old. “There is a whole lot more truth and love and respect in my 60-year relationship with Bill Russell that I want to share so the world can know him,” he wrote in his weekly column, “not just as one of the greatest basketball players to ever live, but as a man who taught me how to be bigger—as a player and as a man.”

In the 1970s, Nichols went on an extended tour of universities and scientific societies encouraging engineers and other STEM professionals of color to look to the stars. They did. “Charles Bolden, a former Marine Corps Major General who flew on four space shuttle missions and became NASA’s administrator for eight years, credited Nichols’s tour with giving him the idea to apply,” writes Stacy Y. China in this wonderful tribute. “Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut, often cited Nichols as an inspiration.”

Keep the flowers for these two extraordinary people, but I’m also doing my job and taking note of the work yet to be done. We are still in an age of long overdue firsts. We’re still dealing with the systemic issues these two outliers were not in a position to address. Some examples are below, as well as in every issue of raceAhead.

This is the work both Nichols and Russell continued to do long after they stepped out of the spotlight, which I guess makes them our ancestors in a very personal way. Let’s claim them. May their memories be a revolution.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point

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Wall Street Journal    

Lt. Gen. Michael Langley has been confirmed as the first Black four-star general in the Marines' 246-year history As you might expect, his credentials are impeccable, with multiple advanced degrees, including a master's in National Security Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. Stars and Stripes outline the high points of Langley’s unlikely rise, noting that “Langley, as one of only six Black generals in the Marines, is a statistical outlier in the Corps and the military more broadly” and that he assumed command of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa in November 2020 “after his predecessor was removed amid allegations of using a racial slur for African Americans in front of troops.”
Congress and NPR

John Birch is back, and better than ever It's hard to really explain what it was like to talk to an original John Birch Society member (if we ever run into each other, and the wine is good, I’ll tell you all about my encounter) but suffice it to say that they're a lot. Then they believed in global conspiracies led by elites, hated communism, and embraced a very specific kind of white supremacy. While they're clearly the predecessors of the modern conspiracies spouted by Alex Jones, Q-Anon, and MAGA movements, the new John Birchers sound like a lot, too. The society was founded in the 1950s by a retired candy mogul named Robert Welch, who named it after John Birch, a missionary killed in China who he deemed to be the first casualty of the communist war on American society. They even tried to cancel President Dwight Eisenhower. Anyway, they're back.
Texas Observer

A new report and interactive tool show the deadly impact of redlining I won’t keep you in suspense—it’s pollution. The long-term impact of redlining, the guidelines preventing federally backed and other lenders from giving mortgages to borrowers in Black, brown, and immigrant communities, means that “undesirable neighborhoods” were ripe for smokestacks, toxic waste dumps, highways, and factories. Researchers from RAND Corporation have found that historically redlined areas are noisier, hotter, have poorer quality air and water, and residents are more likely to live with chronic diseases. Their report comes with a free online tool that explores the conditions of many U.S. cities.“It's meant to start conversations,” said Carlos Calvo Hernandez, an assistant policy researcher at RAND. “Community advocates can just point to the map and say, 'Here is what we've been talking about for years or decades. This is what's been happening in our community.'” Where do your employees live?

Parting words

"One night we came home from a three-day weekend and found we had been robbed. Our house was in a shambles, and 'NIGGA' was spray painted on the walls. The burglars had poured beer on the pool table and ripped up the felt…my parents pulled back their bedcovers to discover that the burglars had defecated in their bed.”

Karen Russell, Bill’s daughter, in a 1987 essay called Growing Up with Pride and Privilege.

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